For this third listening post, I am going to discuss three texts/pieces of media that deepen my understanding of “Preach”: John Legend’s live performance of the song, the piano version of the song, and a cover of “Preach” by Youtube user $OFY.

John Legend performed “Preach” live various times, but specifically, his live performance from April 2019 on The Voice is especially effective.  For one, John Legend’s vocals are smooth and strong, yet he emphasizes certain lyrics as he sings such as “hurting my chest” (around 30 second mark). Seeing Legend’s pleaful singing toward the audience certainly causes one to see this song in a new light – it is not just a song, rather, it is a call to action.  Legend even wears a shirt during this performance that says “Can’t Just Preach” – nodding to the mini-series of the same name that follows survivors of tragedy and activism. The first episode follows Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, who was killed in an act of police brutality. This mini-series certainly is in line with the lyrics that Legend sings about, and it shows that this song is more than just a song but a movement that has stemmed many other projects and activism.

Around the middle of the performance, the audience sees a choir off to the side start to  accompany Legend in his vocal performance.  This certainly changes the tone of the song and adds a vocal depth and fullness that can only be achieved in a group setting.  It gives the song a more gospel and soul feel, which lends itself to the genre that Legend is known for. As the live performance continues, especially around the 3 minute mark, we see the chorus that accompanies Legend’s performance start making their way to the stage to join him.  They are holding candles, almost like they are going to a memorial (This makes sense; likely this is in memory of all of the victims of violence in all of its forms that lost their lives). This, I argue, is the most significant part of the performance as the symbolism cannot be ignored. How many more memorials must happen before we realize that we need to take action to protect our people from (sometimes preventable) violence?  This live performance certainly aids in my understanding of the song as a whole, and the symbolism of the many issues it covers. I also am glad I took the time to look up the projects such as the mini-series that stemmed from the production of this song.


Another text that contributes to my understanding and view of “Preach” is a cover I found on Youtube; the cover of “Preach” by Youtube user/singer $OFY was one of the first ones that came up when I searched for covers of the song. I was surprised at the number of covers that I found; I expected way more.  Maybe because John Legend is so famous, or because the song is so impactful; I am not sure.  However, now that I think about it, maybe that is sort of also the reason why there aren’t as many covers as I thought.  Maybe a lot of singers do not want to “go there” emotionally or sing a song that makes such a political and personal statement.  They would rather leave Legend’s masterpiece to Legend alone.  However, the covers I did come across were very compelling and dynamic, including $OFY’s cover. The first thing that struck me about $OFY (and her channel) was that English is not her first language. I could tell this by the intonation of the lyrics she sang, and by the majority of comments on the video being in Russian (I plugged some of the comments in to Google Translate to figure out the language). In addition, $OFY’s description of her video is written in both an English and Russian version.  This really goes to show how far-reaching Legend’s song and message is (and continues to be). I am aware that American music is enjoyed internationally, but it is only in recent years that international music has become widespread in America. Nevertheless, $OFY’s cover combines smooth vocals and profound emotion to produce a feeling similar to listening to the original song.  (I also enjoyed seeing the song being sung by a woman; I wonder if “Preach” would have been so successful and respected if it was put out by a woman…)

I give $OFY a lot of credit as well for being able to sing such an emotional song while looking head-on into the camera almost the entire time.  She is not performing for a crowd, and she isn’t performing in a music video – she is standing at a microphone in front of a curtain and baring her soul through the song. It is so hard to sing to a camera, let alone sing a song as emotional and dynamic as “Preach.” This really molds my understanding of the song in general and understanding how the energy of audiences or certain performances will affect the presentation of a song significantly (and not always in a bad way, as in $OFY’s case). 


The final text I would like to highlight is the piano version of “Preach.” I find that the piano versions of most songs in general are more compelling emotionally because  it forces the artist to really connect to the lyrics without the distraction of loud backup vocals or instrumental music. In this piano version, especially, we see this emotional bareness in Legend’s face and body language.  It starts with a voiceover by Legend talking about how political issues seem like they only matter to us if it affects us or our own families, but we must put ourselves in others’ shoes as well and care about issues that affect them just as much as those that affect our own lives. If we live in this way, as Legend explains, it will inspire action.  Action, then, inspires change.

Right away (from the very first chord), it is clear that this version will be much more bare and personal than the original song (and some other performances).  Legend’s vocal entry into the song is soft and unassuming, but as the first few lines are sung, we see Legend start to really lean into his emotions (sadness, frustration, anger) regarding this song and its message. His switch from soft, thoughtful vocals to strong, powerful belts is effective in its own right: this likely represents the emotional rollercoaster that he (and many of us) feel when we think about the current events happening in our country and in the world.

There are specific moments of this version that I found most contributed to my emotional understanding of this song.  Around 2:40, Legend’s face is so twisted and tense that we visibly witness the pain in Legend’s heart as he belts out the lyrics. Around the 4:30 mark and onward, it looks like Legend is virtually on the edge of tears (but angry tears) as he grapples with the realities of the world we live in. His piano playing is almost banging-like at this point, and the video fades out so that we get the feeling we are the music producer/editor sitting there in the studio watching Legend perform.  I really appreciated this moment as a musician myself, because I think that the echo of his singing in conjunction with the final voiceover truly is more impactful than singing alone. In this version as well, Legend seems to take the song a bit slower and is unafraid to take his time.  This really lets him feel every single emotion of the song and process it.  The final voiceover where Legend talks about going to Church as a child and learning to “love your neighbor as yourself” and that your neighbor isn’t just the person who lives next door, but someone you may not even know.  That is the entire message of this version (and the original), and I am honored to have witnessed this performance and let it contribute to my understanding of the song as a whole.